This book was sent to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
22.08.19 / Gollancz / Fantasy / Paperback / 496pp / 978-1473226821
About Edward Cox
Edward Cox began writing stories at school as a way to pass time in boring lessons. It was a hobby he dabbled with until the late 80’s when he discovered the works of David Gemmell, which not only cemented his love of fantasy but also encouraged a hobby to become something much more serious. With his first short story published in 2000, Edward spent much of the next decade earning a BA 1st class with honours in creative writing, and a Master degree in the same subject. He then went on to teach creative writing at the University of Bedfordshire. During the 2000’s he published a host of short stories with the smaller presses of America, where he also worked as a reviewer. Currently living in Essex with his wife and daughter, Edward is mostly surrounded by fine greenery and spiders the size of his hand. His first full novel was The Relic Guild, which was the result of more than ten years of obsessive writing.
About The Song Of The Sycamore
On the broken world of Urdezha, Wendal Finn died on the hostile plains of the wasteland, one more casualty in the endless war between the city-dwellers and the clansfolk. But now Wendal has returned to his home city of Old Castle, possessed by something he brought back from the wasteland, something old and best left forgotten. The spirits are calling it Sycamore, an ancient entity out to avenge all victims of murder. And in a city like Old Castle, no one is innocent.
With his mind trapped inside a dead body, Wendal can do nothing but watch as Sycamore turns him into a serial killer. Until the magicians take an interest in him. Preserving Wendal’s body and trapping Sycamore inside it, the magicians now have the perfect assassin at their disposal. Whenever they need an enemy removed, they can set the killer loose on Old Castle. Between these moments of horror, Wendal struggles to piece together the remnants of his former life. He wants to know why his wife died while he was fighting in the war, but no one will tell him, no one wants him to know. Left to his own devices, Wendal picks at the scabs that cover the dark secrets of the magicians and reveals a threat to every city on Urdezha.
The clans are massing. A supernatural storm is raging across the wasteland. It has already destroyed one city, and now it is heading for Old Castle. And the only one who might prevent oblivion is the murderous entity who the spirits are calling Sycamore.
Q&A with Edward Cox
Thank you Edward for taking some time to answer a few questions about your latest novel, The Song Of The Sycamore. Could you give us your own personal overview of what readers should expect in within the book?
Hello! And thank you for having me.
The Song of the Sycamore is set on the irreparably broken world of Urdezha, a global wasteland interspersed by cities, the last bastions of old civilisations. While war rages between the city- dwellers and the clans of the wastes, the human race is once again meddling with powers beyond its control, and this time Urdezha might be heading towards its final destruction.
Wendal Finn has returned home from the war a ruined and changed man. His old life is gone, he no longer has a soul, and he has been possessed by an ancient and murderous entity who the spirits are calling Sycamore. Wendal is thrust into a shady world of secrets and mystery, political intrigue, and the darkest, most dangerous corners of his home city, as he searches for the remnants of his life before the war. And with Sycamore inhabiting the space where his soul used to be, he has become the deadliest man on the planet. Oh, and there’s plenty of monsters, magic and mayhem!
The concept you have crafted here is really intriguing. Where did the inspiration for The Song Of The Sycamore come from?
As with most of my stories, there’s a host of ideas accumulated over the years. The story of Orpheus and Eurydice is an obvious inspiration, I think, along with the Egyptian myth of the Sycamore. My memory of the Chernobyl disaster features heavily. My love of wastelands and the worlds of the Science Fantasy and Dying Earth stories I grew up reading are definitely in there. All these things get mashed and ground into a concept, then I start writing and see where the story leads. I don’t think there’s ever one single inspiration by the time my stories end.
Could you give us a few more insights into what Wendal has to face within this story and what can you tell us about Sycamore?
The interesting thing about writing Wendal is I had to stamp him down to rock bottom at the story’s very beginning and keep him there throughout. His tale is quite bleak, but he’s always fighting to reach hope and redemption. Technically, he was killed in the war, but his possessor won’t let him die, so this opened the door for him to face situations that no regular mortal could survive. Wendal is captive to both Sycamore and those who want to use the entity as an assassin, and his real struggle becomes finding a way out of this situation without sinking into oblivion.
As for Sycamore, some cultures might name him Death. He was a rewarding challenge to write. He’s not a god, because the mechanics of existence is more complicated than that, but from human perspective he is god-like, an unknowable entity of enormous power, who becomes trapped inside the body of a lowly mortal and in many ways becomes as weak as his host. He has no love for the human race, not while they’re alive; being as old as life itself he remembers what Urdezha was like before humans reduced it to a wasteland. The trick to writing Sycamore was finding the balance to retain his mystery. He pretty much knows the secrets of the universe, but there’;s only so much he’ll reveal to lesser minds.
Does The Song Of The Sycamore have a significant difference tone and atmosphere compared to your Relic Guild series?
I suppose there’s a stronger leaning to towards horror elements in this one. The obvious difference is that this is a standalone novel and not the first book in a series. Where The Relic Guild, The Cathedral of Known Things, and The Watcher of Dead Time, were a single adventure spanning three books and visiting many strange worlds, The Song of the Sycamore is fixed to a city called Old Castle with a flashback segment to Wendal in the war. It’s a more claustrophobic and tightly-wound story, which drills into the human condition while the larger world forms a backdrop. In saying that, there are concepts and themes in the book which I touched on in The Relic Guild series but didn’t get enough time to fully develop. Possession and social conditioning, for example; modes of transport and alternate energies (and how those energies can be perverted). I wanted to return to the concept of wastelands, as well. In The Relic Guild I had the Retrospective, which was a perpetually recycling and expanding wasteland where anything could happen, but it wasn’t compatible with life. In Sycamore, the wasteland is formed from millennia of ancient civilisations, empires and buildings and lost technologies, stamped down into a hostile landscape that covers an entire world. There are no frontiers as such, the wasteland is simply everywhere, but it is survivable . . . if you’re quick and smart enough.
Your passion for and knowledge of fantasy writing is spectacular. How did you come to appreciate the genre so much?
Wow, my knowledge has never been called “spectacular” before. I need a minute to savour this moment . . . Well, I guess a general interest in the genre began when I started reading. I read across the genres, of course, but I’m always drawn back to monsters and magic and adventure. I don’t think I was ever going to write anything other than Fantasy because the more I can make up the happier I am. In short, I’m a fan of the genre and I’m perpetually intrigued by its stories, history, and authors.
What did you try in The Song Of The Sycamore that you wouldn’t have done in any of your previous novels?
There’s one chapter, quite late in the story, which is essentially Sycamore’s monologue. Years ago, I read “The Fall” by Albert Camus and I was fascinated by the style. It’s written as a monologue in which the protagonist is obviously talking to someone, but you only ever see the protagonist’s side of the conversation. It stayed with me and I always thought I’d give the style a go one day, which I did for one chapter in The Song of the Sycamore. It was fun to figure out and I think it sits well in the narrative.
What was the most challenging parts of writing about a man trapped inside his own dead body, commandeered by a murderous entity and facing conspiracy and destruction?
The relationship between Wendal and Sycamore took a while to get right. They only meet in drug-fuelled dreams, where Sycamore forces Wendal to confront the memories he is suppressing. To this god-like entity, his host has the intelligence of an ant. To Wendal, his possessor is something beyond comprehension, but he has
learned not to fear him. Sycamore is never patronising, but he is tired and bored of dumbing himself down, though he has grown fond of Wendal, even if he’d like him to die. Making them both relatable in these drug-dreams was probably the biggest challenge.
How long did it take you to write The Song Of The Sycamore compared to your Relic Guild novels?
From inception to handing in the third book, The Relic Guild trilogy took around eight years to write. The Song of the Sycamore took just over two years, and it was never meant to take that long. I reckoned on a year, to be honest, but along with suffering a hangover from The Relic Guild, I also had some health issues. Nothing life threatening, but enough to knock me off my stride. My concentration levels still aren’t back to where they used to be, and it was a hard slog to get this book finished. The biggest difficulty was getting the ending right. There are eleven different versions of the story in my computer, each one with an alternate ending, and initially I chose the wrong one to submit to my agent and editor. But at least there are some DVD extras!
Is The Song Of The Sycamore a standalone or can we expect more instalments in the future?
It’s very much a standalone. Though I have an idea of what happens next on Urdezha. And by “idea” I mean I know what happens next. And by “know” I mean I’ve planned the story out and could start writing it tomorrow. Whether or not it’ll come to pass, we’ll have to see. Ooh, enigmatic!
Is there a part of The Song Of The Sycamore (or the relic guild novels) that you are particularly proud of? Do you have a favourite quote you can share with us?
I have to be careful of spoilers here, but there’s a moment when I stop holding Sycamore back and let him fly with full force. It leads to a scene which has my favourite piece of dialogue: “Imagine how small your world is, a speck of life before the endlessness of the other side. Now envision, if you can, how insignificant an act it is for me to kill the fucking lot of you.”
Did you always have your eye set on being a writer/author and what sort of books did you grow up reading?
I think so. I was always making up stories as a kid, usually involving magic and heroism, whatever I was doing, especially at school. It just took me a long time to realise that I was a writer and I should probably write these fantasies down. School actually killed my love of reading for a while, because I was so often being made to read books I had no interest in. Fortunately, I picked up the habit again after I left and never looked back. There’s nothing on Earth like a good story, and it’s always best to be left alone to choose which ones take your fancy.
Have you got a hobby/activity you do to wind down from all the writing?
Movies and box sets, computer games and books, spending time with my wife and daughter. I find relaxation in most pursuits I can conduct while being very lazy about it.
Finally, have you read a book/article recently that you would personally recommend to the readers of this post?
I’ve just read Tad Williams and Joanne Harris, two authors whose stories never fail to entertain me. Other recent reads include Anna Stephens and Laura Purcell; there’s Peter McLean, Gavin G Smith, Dhonielle Clayton, Mimi Yu, RJ Barker, Adrian Tchaikovsky . . . and so many more who are writing amazing and often progressive fantasies. There are some fine, fine works to discover out there. Go browse in your bookshops!
Thank you to Edward Cox for going through my questions and giving some great answers. I am actually desperate to read The Song Of The Sycamore! It has jumped to my top fantasy reading priority for 2019. The concept sounds so cool and Edward Cox is a talented fantasy writer so I have complete faith that this novel is going to be awesome. I love doing Q&As that get me excited about books as it reinvigorates my blog, especially when I am in a slump, and gives everyone another epic read to consider. The Song Of The Sycamore is out right now, go get a copy! I will be, and thank you to Gollancz for including me on this blog tour. Thanks for stopping by and come back for plenty more Q&As and fantasy content in the future.